By James Foritano
Boston, MA – There’s just no telling where telling detail will show up, except, of course, as you take in the “Hokusai” exhibit currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. There, it’s everywhere — and you are the omniscient, highly selective eye.
A word of warning, though, before you start your journey through old Japan. In our fast-paced times, we are more used to crisply defined objectives, looking at our crowded world with a summary eye, and then ‘tweeting’ our response to those who have to know.
Hokusai had a different mission, a different pace, a different audience in mind. He exercised his omnivous eye, tireless hand to record, to tell, albeit with economy and wit, nearly everything to everybody.
Whoever you are, you are there. Have an eye for the beauty of flowers, birds, insects? Prepare to be mesmerized as the horsefly homes in on the chrysanthemum, as the swallow dive bombs the peonies.
Hokusai’s studies of cultivated nature will convince the botanist, the ornithologist, the aesthete, with each telling work, that he is one of them.
And they — you — will linger to hear everything Hokusai has to say about your passion. And suddenly it’s closing time at the museum and you’ve barely tasted but a dozen prints.
Meanwhile your friend, who knows better than you what Hokusai is all about, is a couple rooms away, giving his whole energy to studying Hokusai’s and his real passion: human society in its various shifts, guises and moods.
A gaggle of aristocrats are returning from perhaps a picnic outing, and though they are a few hundred years back in time, a world away from us, their leisured, cultivated outlook on life animates their discussion at a turn in the path with lively gestures, floats through the luxurious cut and colors of their clothing.
Behind them, in both distance and social station, servants in uniform, utilitarian white, lug the paraphernalia of an outing that has secured their masters’ brief foray into nature at the same high level of cultivation they enjoy at home.
Weighty boxes, a long and wide parasol, bend suspension poles between sturdy shoulders. But this weight doesn’t weigh on the spirits of these servitors in an ‘upstairs/downstairs world.’ There are still distances to be covered, opportunities to by grasped by lively gossip, a brisk trade of information in these foothills of ambition.
Just outside the sphere of both aristocrats and working class, a group of country children gathering herbs stops work to roll on their bottoms and point at every funny nuance of dress and manner these denizens of the city are so amusingly transporting through their unchanging pastoral world. A parade!
Juxtaposed to the compendium outlook of the above study are more focused passages depicting craftsmen throwing roof tiles wrapped in straw from lower to higher parts of a steep pitched roof in the making.
A lumberyard shows a workman precariously poised on a huge piece of squared-off timber sawing yet more useful geometry from this former giant of the forest.
I’m convinced that not only will our sociologist find himself immersed in his study of Hokusai’s delicately, vigorously depicted layers of Japanese society back in the day, but a roofer, a sawyer or any other practitioner of the numerous trades that fasten together and extend our shelter will be equally fascinated, transported even to moments of his or her union with a serviceable tool.
It’s said that a nautical man reading Shakespeare will be shortly convinced that the bard must have been a sailor; likewise, a military man will be full of admiration for Shakespeare the soldier and strategist, regretting only that they couldn’t have tramped together on a long, meticulously planned campaign.
And, just as keenly, when Hokusai’s leaves behind the idiosyncrasies of society, as well as every evidence of human habitation for the beauty of unschooled nature, the explorer will find herself accompanied by a kindred spirit, a connoisseur of worlds beyond civilization’s blinkered ken.
But don’t be fooled! Hokusai’s crafty eye and mercurial spirit speaks of everything to everyone — no matter how recondite or popular your passion, he’ll take you along with him, in both body and soul.
So, spare yourself exhaustion, as this writer didn’t, saunter from place to place in this compendious exhibition and station yourself before one or two probing glances into one whole world after another. Each will speak to a part of you more or less urgently.
And don’t separate from your companion(s) who will point to details you would have overlooked. After playing the student, you can profess to their ignorance, gently.
Give yourself a few more than a couple of helpings in the room of “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” Take in at least one viewing there of Hokusai’s iconic print, “ Under The Wave Off Kanagawa,” as easy to find, as hard to leave as Leonardo’s Mona Lisa — thronged with gawking tourists holding up cell-phones.
A final tip, start at the exhibition’s end for the reason that otherwise you’ll never get there, and also for the frisson of dragons, goblets and spirits abounding.
As well as being a connoisseur of every earthly sphere, Hokusai introduces us to unearthly beings as confidently and vividly as any ghost tale of Edgar Allan Poe. When the firelight dims and before your own fires dim, swarm with these supernatural beings from another time, another hemisphere — but chillingly close.
(“Hokusai” continues through August 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Avenue of the Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston; for more information, call (617) 267-9300.)